SEIU's Burger on political spending binge

Official figures understate flood of dues for politics

Believing it's within sight of a major pro-union shift in Washington, the Service Employees International Union announced that it will spend $75 million to help its favored candidates in 2008. An additional $10 million will be used to pressure lawmakers when Congress returns next year. It's a record-breaking number for the union, already a top player in Democratic politics. It spent $65 million in 2004, about three times what it spent in 2000.

The SEIU has endorsed Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., for president and believes it is within reach of majorities in Congress that can help it push through its agenda on trade and passing so-called "card check" legislation.

"Our message is loud and clear: Barack Obama is the change that working people need," said SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger, the union's political director.

The campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., hit back, saying it showed Obama's hypocrisy on campaign finance.

"It is ironic that Obama cited these millions as one of the reasons for him pulling out of public financing and breaking his pledge to the American people," McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said.

SEIU will spend a big portion of the money in states like Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado, former GOP strongholds that are now electoral battlegrounds.

In Colorado, SEIU has "organized a number of public workers and expanded our base," Burger said.

SEIU voted in May to affiliate with the State Employees Association of North Carolina, giving it more pull there. It also spent $350,000 on ads to run against Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who's in a tight race against radio host Al Franken.

Obama has often touted his pro-union stances. He has backed the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make union organizing easier by implementing a simple petition drive to replace the federally monitored elections now required.

He and others claim that the Free Choice legislation, also called "card check," would protect workers' rights. Republican critics say it would take away secret ballots, allowing unions to intimidate people during votes.

Obama has also promised to renegotiate international trade deals such as NAFTA to include protections for union-heavy industries. And he's vowed to limit outsourcing and offshoring.

GOP opposition has stymied unions in the past. A card check bill stalled in the Senate last year, 51-48, after a GOP-led filibuster.

SEIU represents about 2 million workers. It is among the few labor groups that are growing and has cultivated close ties with Obama, having been one of the first major groups to endorse his candidacy back in February. Another member of its coalition, the Teamsters, also backed Obama that month. The AFL-CIO waited until last month to endorse the senator.

"We turned out millions of voters for Barack Obama," Burger said. "No other union has done as much as we have done."

Nevertheless, Burger says she expects to see labor have a united front for the general election. She blasted McCain, saying he "refuses to protect workers' rights to have a union," a reference to his opposition to card check.

McCain was not available to talk. He was completing a tour of South and Central America, touting the benefits of free trade.


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